St. Peter’s Church, Philadelphia


There were but fifteen thousand people in Philadelphia when, on March 19, 1753, the suggestion was made to the vestry of Christ Church that a new church or Chapel of Ease of Christ Church be built for the accommodation of the people in the southern part of the city. Thomas and Richard Penn gave a site for the building of the new church, and on September 21, 1758, the corner stone was laid. In 1761 the church was opened, though it was not completed until March, 1763. To the new organization was given the name St. Peter’s, and it was ordered by the vestry of Christ Church, ” that the said church . . . in every respect whatever shall be upon an equal footing with Christ Church, and be under the same government with it.”

At the same time, in view of the gift of the site, it was ordered that ” the first and best pew in the said Church shall be set apart forever for the accommodation of the Honorable Proprietary’s family.”

When the building was completed the building committee reported that the cost was £4,765, 19 s. 6 d. Added to this report were statements that sound quite modern. “The sudden rise in the prices of materials and labor,” and ” the inability of some subscribers to meet their engagements,” had added to the burdens of the committee.

From the beginning prayers were read in the church for the king and all the royal family, but on July 4, 1776, the vestry ordered that patriotic prayers be substituted. While the British were in Philadelphia the prayers for the king were renewed by order of Dr. Duche, rector of Christ Church and St. Peter’s. The official history of St. Peter’s refers to Dr. Duche, who ordered this, in the following sentences :

” From an advocate of the Colonies, he became an advocate of the King, and on the Sunday following the occupation of Philadelphia by the British, he restored the prayers for the King to the Liturgy. This compromise with conditions availed him nothing, and he was arrested for serving as chaplain to Congress after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. The influence , of his loyalist friends secured his speedy release. . . . Not long afterward he went to England, where he remained practically an exile for twelve years, returning to Philadelphia several years before his death, when, it is said, no truer American could have been found in the City. He . . . was buried in St. Peter’s Churchyard.”

During the occupation of the church by British troops in 1777 the pews were burned for fuel, but the building was never closed for lack of fuel or for any other reason, until the late winter of 1917-18, when coal could not be secured.

The wooden fence that surrounded the property originally was burned by the British for fuel, and the brickwall that is now in place was built in 1784.

Washington frequently occupied a pew in St. Peter’s, and many other men who were prominent in the early history of the country worshipped here. The building is practically as it was when they lived. ” It is the same church to which the colonists in their knee-breeches and rich coats came to attend the first service in 1761,” a member of the vestry said in 1891. ” The pulpit, reading desk, and chancel rails were built in 1764, and the present organ loft was put up over the chancel in 1789. In all other respects the plain, austere interior of this old church . . . remains unchanged, the only relic in Pennsylvania, and one of the very few in the country at large, of the church in colonial days. Bishop De Lancey, in his centennial sermon, preached September 4, 1861, said : ` We enter by the same doors—we tread the same aisles—we kneel where they knelt—we sit where they sat; the voice of prayer, instruction, and praise ascends from the same desk from which it reached their ears, in the privacy and seclusion of the same high, strait unostentatious pews.’ ”

In the crowded churchyard are the graves of many colonial worthies as well as many leaders in the early history of America. Stephen Decatur is buried here, and Charles Wilson Peale, who painted a famous portrait of Washington.

The Pennsylvania Evening Post of January 18, 1777, told of the burial of one of the patriots whose bodies were laid here :

” Yesterday the remains of Captain William Shippen, who was killed at Princeton the third instant, gloriously fighting for the liberty of his country, were interred in St. Peter’s Churchyard. His funeral was attended by the Council of Safety, the members of Assembly, officers of the army, a troop of Virginia light horse, and a great number of inhabitants. This brave and unfortunate man was in his twenty-seventh year, and has left a widow and three children to lament the death of an affectionate husband and a tender parent, his servants a kind master, and his neighbors a sincere and obliging friend.”

Captain Shippen, before joining Washington’s army, was captain of the privateer Hancock, which, between July 1 and November 1, 1776, sent to American ports ten prizes captured at sea.